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Parshas Vayeishev (5771)

The First Thanksgiving in History

Do you know when the first Thanksgiving was celebrated?

According to Wikipedia: The traditional origin of modern Thanksgiving in the United States is generally regarded to be the celebration that occurred at the site of Plymouth Plantation, in Massachusetts, in 1621. The Wampanoag Native Americans helped the pilgrims who arrived in Massachusetts cultivate the land and fish, saving them from starvation, and they celebrated with a festive meal of thanks to the Lord. The history of Thanksgiving in Canada goes back to an explorer, Martin Frobisher, who had been trying to find a northern passage to the Pacific Ocean. Frobisher's Thanksgiving celebration was not for harvest, but for homecoming. He had safely returned from a search for the Northwest Passage, avoiding the later fate of Henry Hudson and Sir John Franklin. In the year 1578, Frobisher held a formal ceremony in Newfoundland to give thanks for surviving the long journey.

Truth to tell, the above information is not entirely accurate. You see, we Jews were actually the first people in history to publicly celebrate “Thanksgiving” well over 3000 years ago - as commanded in the Torah – and it is a tradition which is carried on until today.

When the Beis HaMikdash (the Holy Temple in Jerusalem) was standing, a person who survived a potentially life-threatening situation – e.g. crossing a desert or a sea, imprisonment or serious illness – brought a Korban Todah, a Thanksgiving Offering, to express his gratitude to G-d for saving him (see Leviticus 7:12-15).

The Korban Todah was unique in that it had to be eaten the same day on which it was offered. In this short span of time, a large amount of food had to be consumed. For in addition to the actual animal offering (which was either a bull, a calf, a ram, a sheep or a goat), 30 loaves of unleavened bread and 10 loaves of leavened bread were offered and consumed by the kohanim (priests) and by those who brought the offering.

Many Torah commentators have suggested that the reason why the Torah required that such a large quantity of food be eaten in such a short span of time was so that the person who brought the offering would have no choice but to invite guests to help him eat all of it – thus publicizing the miracle of his survival and his thanks to G-d in front of more people.

In this day and age, when there is no Temple and thus no sacrifices, people who survive any life-threatening situation will often make a se’udas hoda’ah, a feast of thanksgiving, after having survived a life-threatening incident or illness and on the anniversary of their survival. The Chayei Adam writes that one should also give a charitable donation equal to the value of the animal that he would have brought as a Korban Todah offering.

[The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, used to celebrate his birthday with great joy and merriment, using the following rationale. When a person is in great danger one day and is saved miraculously, he is obligated to thank G-d for performing that miracle for him each year as that day comes around, and to make what is known as a seudas hoda'ah, a party of thanks. And, said the Rebbe, what greater miracle is there than the miracle of childbirth. So each year, as that day comes around, he would make a big birthday party to thank G-d for the miracle of his own birth!]

Further, the Sages instituted that in lieu of the Korban Todah which we can no longer bring today, one can discharge his obligation to thank G-d when surviving a near-death crisis by reciting the Birkas HaGomel, the “Thanksgiving Blessing”, which is a public proclamation of gratitude to G-d, generally recited right after the public reading of the Torah, in the presence of a minyan of ten men.

One of the laws of Birkas HaGomel – or “Benching Gomel”, as it is commonly called - is that only a person who found himself in actual danger and was nevertheless saved recites the Thanksgiving Blessing. However, a person who was merely close to the danger, but was not actually involved in the danger itself does not recite it – as the following story illustrates:

A resident of Boro Park (a highly concentrated Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY) once called Rabbi Moshe Bick - a well-known rabbi and expert in Jewish law who was also blessed with a sharp wit – and asked him the following question: “Rabbi, I was waiting for my friend to pick me up at 9am at the corner of 14th Avenue and 43rd Street but he never showed up. I waited at least a half an hour longer until I decided to give up and go home. The moment I stepped away from the corner, a car that had lost control came smashing full speed right into the pole behind where I was standing! Had I still been waiting there for my friend, I would be a dead man today. Do I need to “Bench Gomel”? To which Rabbi Bick replied: “It’s funny you should ask that. You see, a similar miracle happened to me just a few days ago. I was walking down the street when all of a sudden it started pouring. My pants got soaked and they lost their crease, so I asked my wife, the Rebbetzin, if she wouldn’t mind ironing them. Now if I had still been in my pants when she was ironing them, I would have been burned!”

[For all you need to know about how and when to “Bench Gomel”, click on: http://www.torah.org/advanced/weekly-halacha/5763/matosmasei.html]

In addition to the public proclamation of thanksgiving that is traditionally recited after one survives a serious illness, a sea voyage, a desert journey, or captivity, every human being goes through any number of potential dangers throughout his life, dangers of which he is not even aware. As a daily reminder of this, Psalm 100, Mizmor L’Sodah (“A Psalm of Thanksgiving”) – which was actually recited in the Temple while the Todah sacrifice was being offered - was inserted into the Shacharis (Morning) prayer service.

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) writes: “Mizmor L'Sodah should be sung with a [lively and joyous] tune for [when the final redemption comes] all of the [current] songs and praises will no longer be said, with the exception of Mizmor L’Sodah” (Orach Chaim 51:9)

This parallels another statement made by our Sages in the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 9:7): “In the future [when the final redemption comes], all [Temple] sacrifices will cease, [but] the Thanksgiving Offering will not cease”.

This refers to individual offerings that, by and large, are brought in atonement for sin. In the utopian times of the Messianic Age, people will no longer be tempted to sin. At that time, all that will be left for us to do is to bring thanksgiving offerings and to sing psalms of thanks to G-d each and every day for all the amazing miracles that we will experience daily.

So it emerges that long before the Pilgrims sat down to eat that turkey dinner with the natives to thank G-d for saving them from death by starvation, the Jewish people have been feasting on lots of meat and loaves of bread while they sang psalms of thanksgiving to the good Lord Who saved them from all manner of danger and illness.

And when the Messiah finally comes, we will be celebrating and hosting Thanksgiving dinners 365 days a year …. now that’s a whole lotta turkey!

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